Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1223, (27 November - 3 December 2014)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1223, (27 November - 3 December 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Renewed ties with South Sudan

Cairo and Juba are rekindling old ties with the visit of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir to Egypt, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

There is nothing underhand about Egyptian-South Sudanese economic and commercial relations. But what really matters for the South Sudanese is a level playing field. The self-effacement of Egypt’s Africa policy has traditionally not always been convincing to Cairo’s African neighbours, and, for South Sudan at least, Sudan itself stands in the way.

In this context, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s reception of his South Sudanese counterpart Salva Kiir in Cairo this week was widely viewed as a landmark event. The historic visit, however, will not offer an immediate transformation of Egypt’s relations with the Nile Basin countries. Throughout modern African history, Cairo has been a particularly dominant force and has had a special resonance in the African political arena.

To the South Sudanese, Cairo is the seat of the Arab League headquarters, but it has never been seen as an exporter of Arabism the way the north of Sudan was. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), long the armed wing of the ruling party in South Sudan, has occupied a mythical status in South Sudanese culture, even if it has proved less formidable in the post-independence period than in the war against Khartoum.

No event in recent South Sudanese history symbolises the plight of the people in the Nile Basin nation than the current civil war and the defection of Reik Machar, the former vice-president of South Sudan, from the ruling party. This has led to economic as well as political effects.

The chief criticism that is often levied against Egypt’s policy on South Sudan is one of omission. More could have been made of mutual friendship. The two countries are uncertain about aspects of Khartoum’s policies in the region. The gap between rhetoric and action also contributed to perceptions of Egyptian “unreliability” during the days of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak.

As far as Cairo is concerned, a stable region is good for its domestic interests, and a successful South Sudan is needed for Egypt to provide further assistance to the country. The two Nile Basin nations signed several agreements in Cairo this week, topping the agenda being cooperation in agricultural development, water resource management, and trade and investment. Both sides noted that, latest wobbles aside, Cairo and Juba needed to take bolder measures to speed up mutual trade.

There are mutual interests, but political uncertainty has led to a deterioration in economic exchanges. Now is the time to press more determinedly ahead, especially since political instability in South Sudan has negatively impacted how the country is viewed by its neighbours.

South Sudan has been buoyed up by the way Al-Sisi has articulated a powerful vision of a rejuvenated Egypt, however, including improving its relations with Africa and the Nile Basin nations. Bilateral relations reached a low ebb with the coming to power of ousted former president Mohamed Morsi precisely because of South Sudanese sensitivities and deep suspicions of the Muslim Brotherhood.

For much of the Mubarak era it appeared that Cairo had no overreaching African strategy. This was particularly true in the case of South Sudan, where Cairo reacted to the South Sudanese sense of frustration and malaise with a lukewarm welcome of the changes in Juba.

The sense of Egyptian ambiguity and indecision about the independence of South Sudan has been highlighted by the fact that this is Kiir’s first visit to Egypt since his country gained independence from neighbouring Sudan in July 2011.

A new chapter in Egyptian-South Sudanese relations has strengthened a growing sense of urgency on both sides to improve bilateral relations. There is a fear in Juba that an open door to Khartoum’s political, ideological and economic interests in South Sudan could undermine whatever power the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement maintains in the capital and in the country at large.

Khartoum’s meddling in South Sudanese affairs has stoked anti-Arab sentiments in Juba and equally virulent anti-Khartoum nationalism abroad. The tensions in Sudan’s Blue Nile and South Kordofan provinces, which are seeking autonomy from the central government, have provoked fears in Khartoum that a South Sudanese-style independence movement could be next on the agenda of the two provinces where a non-Muslim majority is sympathetic to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North.

Cairo has been careful not to get embroiled in Sudanese-South Sudanese politicking. It is in this context that the timing of Kiir’s visit has proved to be particularly thought-provoking.

South Sudan sees Egypt as a potential leader of Nile Basin regional development. “This visit is in response to an invitation extended to the president by the president of Egypt and his government. It is a three-day visit during which the president and the accompanying delegation will have the opportunity to hold frank and open discussions on bilateral matters,” South Sudan’s foreign minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said.

“The discussions will focus mainly on trade and investment in agriculture, health, power and electricity and education”, Benjamin added.

Still, peace in South Sudan is more important than treaties, and the perception of a newly powerful Egypt with an African reach has encouraged South Sudan to sign a military cooperation agreement with it. But South Sudan has to prove that it can instill a politically cohesive state in the country and end the ongoing civil war, this being necessary before Egypt can increase investment in the country.

The question now is not whether Egyptian-South Sudanese relations will continue to develop, but how fast and in which directions.

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